3 Practical Tips for Returning to Work After Mental Illness

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Returning to work after mental illness

Returning to Work After Mental Illness is Challenging

Work is hard… well… work, and mental illness complicates everything. Returning to work after mental illness is no exception.

A debilitating lack of energy, racing thoughts, and distressing low moods can make returning to work feel impossible.

People often get trapped in a cycle of coming back to work, overworking to make up for their absence, and then ending up in an even worse state, needing more time off.

But there are things we can do to make a sustainable return.

By planning and preparing for our return, we can give ourselves some tools to help ease into it and improve our resilience.

In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of

  • Working out your reasons for going back to work
  • Having honest conversations about the support you need
  • Developing and documenting a “roadmap” for your first few weeks.


#1 – Work Out Why You Want to Go Back

Why do you want to go back to work?

Why Do You Need to Know Your Reasons?

If you can’t think clearly all the time or struggle with getting out of bed most mornings, is it still possible to work?

Well, yes. It is still possible, but it’s certainly not easy!

Humans are driven to avoid discomfort and pain, so we’re not likely to stick at something painful with no reward.

Before going back, you need to figure out your reasons for returning to work. Knowing your reasons will remind you why you want to be there when the inevitable shit hits the fan. It gives you resilience.

Make a List of Why You Love Your Job

Everyone’s list will be different. After all, there is more to work than money, and knowing your metaphorical payoff will help you motivate yourself on bad days.

So, list what matters to you about the job you’re hoping to return to.

Your list might include:

  • Having a steady income
  • Structure and routine
  • Achievement after a job well done
  • A feeling of purpose
  • Connections with colleagues

Make a List of What You Struggle With

Let me be clear: having a job isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. To me, it’s certainly preferable to the alternative, but some aspects can harm our mental health.

You need to know what you might struggle with so you can plan for this.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Intense pressure
  • Lack of control
  • Lack of flexibility
  • Encouragement of overworking
  • Blame-culture
  • Lack of support

Same Job or Change of Career?

If your “struggles” outweigh your “loves”, you should consider whether your job still suits you.

A change of job does entail extra short-term stresses. You’ll need to consider what sort of role you could do. The application process can be doubly difficult when struggling with your mental health.

When I developed my last full episode of psychosis in December 2016, I was off for six months. The targets were demanding, and there was constant pressure. As a result, I stopped my medication to keep up…

Once I was stable again in early 2017, I wanted to keep working but knew I couldn’t return to that role. So I decided to find a better fit.


#2 – Have an Honest Conversation With Your Employer and Support Network

Have honest conversations

Be Open and Ask for Support

It’s vital that you speak with your manager about what support you need and work with them to develop a plan for coming back.

They may suggest a referral to occupational health to discuss your needs in more detail and better understand your condition.

Companies can make many reasonable adjustments, including phased returns, changes in duties, and changes in working hours. Discuss these options with your manager and find out what they can arrange.

When I moved to my current job, I was encouraged not to mention my mental illness by the recruitment agency. I knew that I might become unwell again in the future, so I was honest with the hiring manager.

It was the right call as it enabled me to be flexible with my shifts around therapy, which kept me well, and they appreciated my openness.

Speak to Family and Friends

Family and friends can also support you in your return, and you should keep them abreast of your plans to return to work.

The conversation doesn’t have to be heavy – just tell them what you intend, why you want to go back, and how they can help you adjust. Perhaps you’ll need their help to wake up on time, develop your routine, or challenge yourself if your self-care starts slipping.

They might raise concerns you haven’t thought of yet. Whatever they raise, try to take it on board.

Speak to Professionals

Your doctors or therapists should be kept in the loop too.

There might be extra support they can put in place to help you. They might be able to reschedule appointments to less disruptive times or write letters to your employer to help them understand your challenges.

When I returned to work, my therapist was excellent in ensuring our sessions covered any worries I had about going back beforehand. He also suggested how I could work through them and communicate them to others. He was a vital sounding board, and his input ensured I was as level as possible when I returned.

#3 – Create a “Roadmap”

Create A Roadmap

How Will a Roadmap Help You?

While not everything will go according to plan, it helps to have a general idea of what you’re up against.

Developing a loose roadmap will help you think ahead of time about your needs. By writing this information down, you’re ensuring you can use it in future if you need to re-orient yourself.

It will also allow you to communicate your goals to those around you, making it easier to get the support you need.

Develop Routines Which Will Help You Stay Well

Before going back, you need to get into as good a place as possible, so review your self-care routine. Aim for your functional minimum – you can add elements later. What do you need to do each day/week/month to allow you to stay well?

You might consider:

  • Medication
  • Therapeutic work
  • Sleep hours
  • Nutrition
  • Personal hygiene
  • Relaxation

 Remember to communicate openly with your loved ones throughout this process so they can understand your needs and boundaries with your self-care.

Work With Your Employer to Develop a Plan for Your First Few Weeks

Before you go back, check in with your manager.

Try to find out as much information about what you can expect to be working on for your first few weeks and the adjustments in place. Documenting this means you’ll have something to refer back to in case of any hiccups.

They can then arrange support so it’s ready on your return – and you’re not left in the lurch.

Whether you’re returning to your current employer or moving to a new company, structuring a written plan can help you communicate your needs more efficiently. Clear communication is crucial in empowering others around you to help you, especially if they’re strangers.

Plan for the bad days

You will not be perfectly okay from the first day you go back. Going back to work – especially full-time – is a huge adjustment, so give yourself a break.

Instead of criticising yourself when you have a terrible day, plan what you can do when one hits.

One thing that many people have found helpful is a WAP (that’s a Wellness Action Plan… not the other… thing).

WAPs allow you to document what you’re like when you’re well and not-so-well, and what would help you if a crisis hit. Mind has specific templates for different working arrangements.

It’s worth completing a WAP and sharing it with your closest loved ones and your manager.

Key Points

Serious mental illness can make returning to work gruelling, but some things can help ease the transition:

  • Make a list of reasons to return and things you currently struggle with
  • Weigh up these lists, and consider whether you need to pursue a new job
  • Find out what reasonable adjustments your employer can make
  • Discuss your return with loved ones and professionals
  • Review your self-care routines – how can you improve these before you go back?
  • Ask in advance what your first few weeks back are likely to involve and what support is available
  • Develop a Wellbeing Action Plan
  • Document your plans to allow easy, efficient communication.

I really hope this list helps you if you choose to return to the workplace.

As ever, until the next post!

Bronwyn @ LBT x

What struggles have you had in returning to the workplace? Is there anything left out of the list above that would have helped you? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please let me know via the comments or the contact page.